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Jun 17, 2012

Lacklustre Dutch get what was due

There are many debacles littering the overstuffed pantheon of Dutch football failures: three World Cup final appearances for the best country that’s never won one, player/management mutiny aplenty, many penalty shootout-related eliminations and a long list of heartbreakers. But a special wing is dedicated to the most grievous episodes – the very worst of collapses. Like World Cup 1990, when the Netherlands were favoured to follow up their Euro ’88 victory but crashed out in the second round to a vengeful West Germany. Or the 2002 World Cup that the golden Ajax generation of the mid-'90s (at the height of its powers) failed to qualify for outright. It’s in that sad space that Netherlands’ Euro 2012 campaign will take residence.

Only for a brief flurry did the Oranje look like they would pull of a nigh-on impossible task on Sunday. If it was to overcome losses against Germany (2-1) and Denmark (1-0) and improbably advance to the quarter-finals of the European Championship they would have to win by at least two goals against Portugal, a team Netherlands have beaten just once in ten prior games. Oh, and Germany would need to beat the headstrong Danes too.

Up until the 11th minute – when Rafael Van der Vaart, making a start in place of captain Mark van Bommel at long last, cut inside off an out-of-character lay-off from Arjen Robben and curled the ball past Rui Patricio – the Dutch commanded the game.

But once Cristiano Ronaldo and his cohorts started galloping at the flotsam posing as a Dutch defence, Portugal roundly overran their opponents. Nani and Co set about creating a host of chances and looked more Dutch than the Dutch themselves: exploiting the wings, making sharp runs, moving dynamically and interchanging positions with speed and panache.

In the 28th minute, Ronaldo made his mark. The Real Madrid star, who had already wasted several gilt-edged chances, ran onto the end of a seeing-eye pass by Joao Pereira and easily slotted it past Maarten Stekelenburg. And thus the Dutch were undone, finally and irrevocably.

Portugal were merciful on the foe they had knocked out of Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 too, not scoring a second until the 74th, when a perfect cross from Nani left Ronaldo open again to coolly put the 2-1 final score on the board. Had the Portuguese been an ounce more precise, they might well have hung a half dozen past the Dutch on the night.

All that had ailed and troubled the Netherlands throughout this nightmare run was magnified on Sunday. The defence, who tellingly never lined up with the same personnel twice in the three-game group stage, were shambolic. Consequently, the two deep midfielders were forced back to help out, pulling the Dutch formation – a six-man defence and four-man attack – out of sync. Even the simplest of passes started missing intended targets like ships in the night; the wings were again underused; the form of the strikers was again poor. Beside the ever out-of-sorts Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – inserted at Ibrahim Afellay’s expense – was invisible and didn’t shoot meaningfully until the final minutes of the game. It all underscored the utter lack of chemistry on the field.

Then there was the ruinous team atmosphere off the field. Wesley Sneijder acknowledged that there was strife – which he has often been blamed of being central to in the past – ahead of the tournament and suggested the team rid itself of “pathetic egos”. Van Bommel too admitted that the “atmosphere has been better”. Manager Bert van Marwijk, meanwhile, strangely alluded to the tension by saying he could only wish the atmosphere was as bad as it was rumoured to be for Spain, who'd just won their last game 4-0 over Ireland.

Theories abound that Sneijder and Van Persie had taken up their feud once again. Ever since the duo represented the youth national teams in their teenage years, they’d bickered over who was top dog while they made the climb towards starring for the senior national team. When Robben joined them there, another difficult character was added to the mix, making for a combustible nucleus that forever threatened to torpedo the Dutch. Typical thereof was Robben’s petulant, shirt-less walk back to the bench after his substitution against Germany; Robben took the long way back, climbing over the advertising boards and making clear his dismay. As were the many instances of the Oranje players jawing back and forth throughout their three games.

At this Euro, we saw Netherlands at their Mr Hydest. Their long-time issues, buried in 2010 when the Dutch galvanised to reach the World Cup final, resurfaced with ruinous effect.

And what a pity, too. The peak of another golden generation may have gone to waste: Sneijder hasn’t quite been his dominant self as a playmaker since his 2009-10 season at Inter Milan; Van Persie is at the absolute height of his powers and yet it's unclear how long he’ll be able to sustain this form; every tumble the brittle Robben takes could be his last. As midfielder Nigel de Jong put it, this was his generation’s best chance given that World Cup 2014 will be hard to win on South American soil. Thus three extraordinary talents are unlikely to complete their remarkable careers with an international prize.

This generation will be affixed with a label of infamy, one that is all too familiar to their Dutch predecessors who fell victim to in-fighting with similar regularity. For the first time since 1984, the side have failed to make it into the quarter-finals of the European Championship. For the first time in 12 major tournaments they have entered, Netherlands have not made it out of the group stage. And in so doing, these Dutch players have tainted their World Cup runner-up medals too.

Even a more pragmatic playing style, infuriatingly doing away with the free-wheeling offence in favour of holding midfielders and all-round balance, wasn’t able to overturn 40 years of structural underperformance. The more things change for Oranje, the more they stay the same.

After the final whistle, there was no dishevelment registered on the faces of the Dutch, no surprise. After three lacklustre losses, the Dutch merely got what was due.

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